Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, their behavior follows from complex interactions among their individual genomes and epigenomes, their internal and external environments as both shaped and shaping, and their experiential histories from birth on.  We don’t think we could predict with total accuracy what an individual animal will do in a given situation, but that is only because we realize the interactions that lead to animal behavior are complex and happen at many different levels from the most micro to the most macro.

Humans often say that they are far more intelligent than any animal.  They will say things like “A dog has the intelligence of a two-year-old”.  But, of course, they stack the deck in their own favor by choosing a definition of “intelligence” that favors only them.  If we choose a fairer definition—one like “intelligence is the ability to face and solve the problems one faces in life”—then most animals impress me as more competent that most humans.  Humans in so many ways—as individuals and as groups—undermine themselves and bring on more problems than they solve.  No animal has our ability to undermine ourselves and screw things up for all life on earth, ourselves included.

So, what do humans have that other animals do not, if it isn’t intelligence?  What we have is a mental capacity to “theorize”.  By this I mean a capacity to make up stories about why things happened and about what might happen.  We are aware of death and of the possibility of ever greater pain.  We alone can be worried that things happen randomly, probabilistic, and sometimes for no “good reason”.  We alone can worry about our place in the universe and what it all means.  Other animals don’t.

Our capacity to theorize gives rise to very mixed blessings.  We are driven by stress, anxiety, and fear more than any other creature.  We can do science and make medicines that save us from pain, though often we then misuse them to ultimately bring on more pain and suffering in aggregate.  We can make up religions to comfort us in the face of death and then use them as a license to bring death to others.  We humans will most often choose a theory/story that is comforting, but false, over a theory/story that is true, but not comforting.

So, human action is a product of complex interactions—most of which individual humans have no conscious awareness of and which even science is confounded by—and often largely deceptive theories (confabulated stories).  To see such actions as the product of “free will” is a comforting story, but, in all likelihood, false.  A choice is hardly “free” if we make it on the basis of very little of the processes and evidence relevant to it.

A small part of our brain is conscious and most of what goes on in the brain and body leading to feelings, beliefs, and actions is not open to conscious awareness.  Yet the small—and poorly informed—conscious part of our brain confidently confabulates and firmly believes that we have made free and informed choices.

This idea—that free will does not exist—is not one most humans or society can live by.  While we don’t live in a ­­mechanical clockwork determinist universe, we do live in a world of inconceivable complexity that often rules out successful prediction, even about ourselves.  The leading emotion this realization leads to is massive wonder to the point of bewilderment, an emotion that we often try to tame or “normalize” with stories, religious and otherwise, that tell us that things “happened for a (good) reason”.

It does appear that humans do not have free will in the sense of the term as we humans usually understand it.  Yet, we are not “determined” in any simple sense at all.  Our actions, beliefs, and feelings are the outcomes of an immense number of process in us, outside us, and in interactions between the two, at all different (but interacting) levels.  Little of these processes are open to conscious awareness and much is still poorly understood by science at this point.  These outcomes are the product of a complex system, or better of different complex systems interacting with each other.  Such complexities mean that with even small changes—even random changes—in the interacting processes, the outcomes could well have been different, even very different.

At this level of complexity, the notion of “free choice” is a prosocial notion necessary for the existence of society (and law), not an empirical reality at the level of “nature”.  Without people accepting that they make free choices and are responsible for the outcomes of those choices (within limits), society could not exist, nor could collective action.

As an aside, I should mention that religion often has a contradictory relationship to free will.  Some religions say humans are free to choose, but that if they make the wrong choices—choices they know they should not make if they have kept up with their religion—they will be punished in the “next life”.  It is hard to see a choice as free when I have already told you that if you choose “door X”, you’re going to hell.  Worse yet, some religious people see this “forced choice” situation as a “gift” from God, rather than a cruel game, especially since, God being all-knowing, “He” already knows what choice you are going to make, but, nonetheless, let’s you hang yourself anyway.

Animals, of course, do not sit around worrying about the meaning of it all in a world where our choices are illusory.  They get about the business of living—and it appears that while some religious people believe they can go to heaven, no one seems to think they can go to hell (because they don’t have “free will”).







1 2 3
March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]